Today’s feature is the much-maligned film adaptation of the Mattel franchise He-Man: Cannon Group’s Masters of the Universe.
Masters of the Universe was written by David Odell, who also penned such films as Supergirl, The Dark Crystal, and numerous episodes of The Muppet Show.
The director on Masters of the Universe was Gary Goddard, which is to date his only feature film directorial credit. However, he has produced and written a number of shorts and 3D/4D shows for theme parks over the years, if that counts for anything.
The cinematographer for Masters of the Universe was Hanania Baer, who has shot such movies as American Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, The Brotherhood of Justice, and Ernest Scared Stupid.
The editor on the film was Anne V. Coates, who has also cut movies such as Fifty Shades of Grey, Congo, Lawrence of Arabia, Striptease, Erin Brockovich, and The Golden Compass over her career.
The two primary producers of Masters of the Universe were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the infamous duo behind the flurry of Cannon Group b-movies that dominated the 1980s (Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, American Ninja). The other producers included Elliot Schick (Total Recall), Edward Pressman (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Judge Dredd, Street Fighter), and Evzen Kolar (Surf Ninjas).
The makeup effects team for Masters of the Universe included Robin Beauchesne (Killer Workout, Iron Man 2, First Daughter, National Treasure), James Kagel (Stargate, Child’s Play, Big Trouble In Little China), Todd McIntosh (April Fool’s Day), Gerald Quist (Drive, Jonah Hex, Breakfast of Champions, Re-Animator), June Westmore (Sphere), and Michael Westmore (Raging Bull, Capricorn One).
The Masters of the Universe special effects team was composed of Larry Roberts (Volcano, 3 Ninjas Kick Back), Karl G. Miller (Cat People, The Blues Brothers, Battlestar Galactica), Daniel Hutten (Die Hard, Solarbabies), R.J. Hohman (The Perfect Storm, Cyborg, Popeye, The Two Jakes), and Arthur Brewer (The Hitcher, Swamp Thing, Smokey and The Bandit).
The massive team of visual effects artists on Masters of the Universe included common elements with such productions as Ghostbusters, Volcano, Coneheads, Leonard Part 6, Fright Night, Donnie Darko, Battle Beyond The Stars, Mystery Men, Lawnmower Man 2, Ghost, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The music for Masters of the Universe was composed by Bill Conti, who is best known for his work on the Rocky movies, The Karate Kid, and The Right Stuff.
The cast of Masters of the Universe included Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV, Dark Angel, The Punisher, Red Scorpion), Frank Langella (The Twelve Chairs, Junior, Cutthroat Island, Small Soldiers, The Ninth Gate), Meg Foster (They Live, Leviathan, Blind Fury, The Lords of Salem), Billy Barty (Willow, Legend), Courteney Cox (Friends, Scream, Cougar Town), Chelsea Field (Death Spa, The Last Boy Scout, Flipper), and James Tolkan (Back To The Future).
The plot of Masters of the Universe follows a group of resistance fighters from a faraway planet who are transported to Earth through the use of a mysterious scientific device. However, their enemies soon follow, in an effort to exterminate them and solidify their sinister rule. He-Man and his allies have to work with a handful of humans from Earth to defeat the evil Skeletor to save both Earth and the faraway planet of Eternia from the long reach of darkness.
In an interview, director Gary Goddard spoke about the stylistic influence of the works of Jack Kirby on Masters of the Universe, saying:
“the storyline was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor thrown in here and there. I intended the film to be a “motion picture comic book,” though it was a tough proposition to sell to the studio at the time. ‘Comics are just for kids,’ they thought. They would not allow me to hire Jack Kirby who I desperately wanted to be the conceptual artist for the picture”
The costuming for the character of Evil-Lyn caused actor Meg Foster significant bruising in particularly inconvenient locations, and reportedly weighed well over 40 pounds in total. Interestingly, the eerie appearance of her eyes in the movie was completely natural, and required no enhancements or contact lenses.
Frank Langella reportedly loved playing the character of Skeletor, and even wrote some of the more memorable lines in the movie himself. He initially took the role because of how much his son loved the franchise, a situation that echoes the similar casting of Raul Julia in the Street Fighter adaptation some years later.
Interestingly, Masters of the Universe is an adaptation specifically from the original line of toys, and not the immensely popular cartoon, which establishes very different backstories for the characters and the plot. This confused many fans of the franchise when the movie initially released, and almost certainly contributed to the negative reception it received.
The failure of Masters of the Universe, coupled with the disappointment of Superman IV, supposedly foiled plans by the Cannon Group to invest in a high budget film adaptation of Spider-Man in the late 1980s, which was to be funded by the profits of those two films.
A sequel to Masters of the Universe was cast and written, but was ultimately scrapped just as the Cannon Group was going under. Very little is known about the abandoned production, other than that it would have been directed by Albert Pyun (Captain America).
A reboot of Masters of the Universe is currently in the works (and has been for a few years), with the latest information that Thor: The Dark World screenwriter Christopher Yost has been attached to keep it moving along. No directors are currently attached to the project, and no clear timeline has been set for shooting or release.
Anthony De Longis, one of the actors in the film, was initially hired as a sword expert, and provided all of the fight choreography for the film. He even filled in as Skeletor in the fight sequences, and trained Dolph Lundgren on how to use a sword.
Masters of the Universe proved to be a financial failure, bringing in only 17 million at the box office on a budget of 22 million. Likewise, the reviews of the movie were brutal, clocking in at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and 41% from audiences, along with an IMDb rating of 5.3.
One of my biggest issues with the film’s plot is the fact that no bystanders are ever harmed, or even witness the events that take place on Earth. How do no people see an alien army marching through suburban streets, or small aircraft flying over a mid-sized town? At one point, the police finally do show up, but only after they are drug to the scene by another police officer. It is assumed that at no point over the duration of the plot did anyone report suspicious activity, let along openly panic at witnessing an alien invasion.
The story of Masters of the Universe seems to assume previous knowledge of the characters, their relationships, and the basic premise of the story, which is especially confusing given that the adaptation is taken directly from a series of action figures, which are not historically known for establishing plot. The beginning of the movie could even be seen as a follow-up from a previous film given how little backstory is provided.
One unnecessary addition to the cast of Masters of the Universe that particularly got on my nerves was the annoying troll character, Gwildor. While he is crucial to the plot during a handful of moments, his primary purpose is to provide comic relief, which never fails to fall flat. Also, the makeup on the dwarf-like creature is really odd and unsettling, as if he were left out in the sun for too long.
Dolph Lundgren is surprisingly solid enough in this movie, given that he still didn’t have a solid hold on the English language at this point. That said, this certainly wasn’t a dialogue-heavy role for him, which was certainly for the best.
The most notable aspect of Masters of the Universe is that it feels like a patchwork of better known movies from the time, like Star Wars and Back to The Future. There is not much original to it when all is said and done, and the screenplay is about as basic and no-frills as it could possibly be.
overall, I can certainly see why this movie didn’t resonate with existing He-Man fans. That said, there is a fair amount of fun to be had with this admirably mindless entry into the filmography of the 1980s. Frank Langella absolutely hams it up as Skeletor, and the creature work is all very over the top. There are more lasers and goofy visual effects than you could possibly dream of, and the plot itself centers around a synthesizer with the ability to open dimensional portals. What more could you possibly ask for?
The value of this movie definitely comes from a combined sense of nostalgia and how poorly the film has aged on the whole. It isn’t an elite good-bad movie for sure, but I think that it is more than worth checking out at least once for the novelty of it.